This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
Naypyidaw/ Yangon, Myanmar – Since launching their February 1 military coup, Myanmar’s generals have largely stayed out of the limelight, secluded in the country’s ghost town capital of Naypyidaw.
In both a figurative and literal echo chamber that are the cavernous halls of the now-emptied parliament, aided by a surplus of yes-men, the generals have shut out the rest of the country as they justify deadly crackdowns suppressing anti-coup protests.
Until now, reporters from outside Myanmar have also been strictly kept out. But in an unexpected move apparently intended to showcase the military’s control of an increasingly desperate situation, a Southeast Asia Globe journalist, reporting on behalf of Al Jazeera, was invited along with CNN on a weeklong tour of Yangon and Naypyidaw that ended on April 6.
The tour, organised by controversial military PR man Ari Ben-Menashe, provided insight into the outlook and workings of a military government disconnected from the majority of people across the country. During an hour-long conversation with the Globe on April 4, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun never wavered from the military’s message of righteousness – in overthrowing the country’s civilian government and in using violence to consolidate power in the two months since.
He refused to give an exact estimate of when the military, also known as the Tatmadaw, would allow Myanmar to return to some form of civilian rule. He walked back the initial timeline of one year, suggesting the military could extend its ongoing state of emergency order for as long as two years.
“Within one year we are trying to stabilise the country, but if we can’t we will have to extend it six more months. And after that, another six months but that is it,” Zaw Min Tun said, referencing the maximum extension permitted by the military-drafted 2008 constitution.
“So two years maximum and after that, we will invite international actors to monitor a free and fair election.”
In an attempt to justify the power grab as well as the violence used against civilians, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s commander-in-chief and Myanmar’s de-facto ruler, has repeatedly cited claims of election fraud in last year’s November 8 elections. The elections commission, however, says the allegations are baseless.
Zaw Min Tun told the Globe that all political parties would be permitted to stand in any coming election. But he refused to answer when asked whether that promise would include the now-detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won a resounding victory over the military’s political proxy in the November contest.
Instead, the brigadier general pointed to the ongoing investigation into charges filed by military prosecutors against the toppled state counsellor, namely the import of supposedly unregistered walkie-talkies, bribery charges and alleged breaches of COVID-19 safety measures, that have been used both to justify the coup and Aung San Suu Kyi’s current house arrest.
“I don’t have any comments on the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or whether she is allowed to run in the upcoming elections, it depends on what she did in the past. If we find that she did bad things she will be punished,” Zaw Min Tun said.
“The NLD as a whole is also part of this ongoing interrogation but it will take time. For example, if someone has committed murder it will take time to determine if they are guilty.”
That kind of hardline rhetoric has been consistent in the post-coup messaging of the Tatmadaw. The military has claimed to represent democratic principles even as its forces have imprisoned most of the popularly elected government and killed more than 550 of its own citizens.
Fabricated charges and drawn-out court trials have also been at the core of the military’s playbook, especially in efforts to suppress Aung San Suu Kyi, a longtime icon of democracy in Myanmar, and her party. Zaw Min Tun suggested neither would escape the Tatmadaw’s grip anytime soon.
Whether the NLD participates or not, holding a new election at all has been widely denounced by the Myanmar public, which has demanded in the ensuing protests for the November vote to be respected and Aung San Suu Kyi to be released.
Turning the blame on protesters
In cities and townships across the country, citizens of diverse backgrounds have gathered in support of the Civil Disobedience Movement, filling the streets in swelling protests at times numbering hundreds of thousands of people, with the total number in the millions.
Security forces likewise gathered to quash the movement, firing live ammunition at protesters and at times indiscriminately into homes and businesses. Many of those killed in the chaotic countermeasures of the military and police have been mere bystanders to the protests, including at least 46 children.
During the heavily monitored foreign press tour, the military tried to turn the blame onto the protesters. Part of that effort included recruiting supporters from the Yangon region to speak to the foreign journalists. That group of heavily coached and vetted civilians recited accounts of alleged attacks they suffered at the hands of “violators”, the term used by the military to refer to anti-coup demonstrators.
Sayadaw U Thiri Dhamma, a monk from the Wut Kway Taw Pyay monastery in one of Yangon’s northern townships, walked into the news conference in his monastic robes and an eye patch peeking out from behind dark sunglasses.
He said a group of 100 protesters attacked him after believing he was a Tatmadaw spy. The date of the attack is unclear, changing as he speaks between an unspecified date in February to sometime in March.
“There were protesters gathered outside my monastery making noise. When I asked them to be quiet, they attacked me with catapults and accused me of being a spy for the military,” said U Thiri Dhamma.
“In Yangon, it was not only one monastery, there are three other monasteries that were also attacked by the terrorists.”
As U Thiri Dhamma said the word “terrorist”, translators and ministry of defence handlers interjected to correct him as he seemingly drifted off-script. He meant “violator”, they explained but his English was not good.
Le Le Naing Kyaw, a self-described singer hailing from a military family, says that she too was labelled a spy, with posters calling her a traitor being stuck on lamp posts in her neighbourhood. Her home was vandalised as well. She said she had to go into hiding for her safety.
“My family is a military family and so I support the military and accept the coup. But most people in my neighbourhood support the NLD and say they want to kill me,” said Le Le Naing Kyaw. “These people want to destroy the nation.”
While there has been some retaliatory use of violent tactics by demonstrators, the military’s case against the anti-coup movement pales in comparison to the arbitrary killings and attacks committed by soldiers on the other side of the barricades.
The press trip itself showcased the brutality of these offences. Immediately after an April 4 visit by reporters to two Yangon markets, plainclothes security officers arrested 11 people who they believed had interacted in some other way with the foreign journalists. Eight of those individuals who had directly interacted with the tour have since been released.
They maintained that they knew the risk of speaking out against the military to foreign journalists, however, they wanted to ensure that the truth and the stories of their fellow protesters would be recorded and shared.
A young man and woman working at a shop in the market stepped out onto the street holding up the three-finger salute. They have asked to remain anonymous to protect their safety.
“I can’t accept the military coup. They are shooting many people in Myanmar. Every day I see on Facebook that the police and soldiers are killing people,” said the woman.
Some security force members even described to the visiting reporters their use of forceful tactics against peaceful protesters. Police Captain Tun Min and Second Lieutenant Zay Ye are part of the security forces patrolling North Okkalapa, one of the townships in northern Yangon now under martial law. Speaking to the Globe, they admitted that the protests they have witnessed have been nonviolent and yet they used heavy-handed methods to control demonstrators.
“We were stopping the violators. Sometimes I saw raids and blocked roads and rubbish on the streets but that’s all. As far as I could see the demonstrators were not violent but we still used sound grenades,” one of the men said, speaking through a translator.
‘We do not blame them for their condemnation’
The military’s use of lethal force has drawn censure from international partners invested in Myanmar’s democratic transition. The coup has sparked new rounds of foreign trade sanctions targeted at military figures and Tatmadaw-owned businesses, not to mention statements of diplomatic angst.
Back in Naypyidaw, Zaw Min Tun also addressed mounting international criticism of the use of force by security forces against protesters, as well as opposition to the coup more widely. He dismissed the international blowback as a simple matter of differing opinion.
“Yes we know that condemnation has come out from Western countries but condemnation is their own judgement. We have their embassies and ambassadors in our country and we still have diplomacy in their countries too,” the brigadier general said through a translator.
“We do not intend to blame them for their condemnation, this we accept but it does not matter to us.”
The nonchalance of Zaw Min Tun’s dismissal was at odds with the harsher tone of foreign rebukes to this latest chapter of military rule in Myanmar, some of which have come from non-Western powers such as Japan and South Korea.
On the whole, Zaw Min Tun denied any wrongdoing by the Tatmadaw while reasserting promises of holding new elections at some unspecified point in the future.
“Every action we have taken is in accordance with provisions in the constitution,” said the brigadier general. “We would never demolish the democratic system of governance in Myanmar.”
Two months into its quest to erase the results of the November 8 election, the military has moved from contesting ballots to the number of protesters its members have killed since the coup. According to the military, the current death toll stands at 248, less than half the deaths that have been reported by independent media outlets in Myanmar and confirmed by international rights groups.
Min Aung Hlaing has made little comment on the death toll or any of the military’s plans looking forward.
Zaw Min Tun restated in the recent interview allegations that 10.4 million votes from the previous elections were either missing or falsified – numbers that have been negated by independent election observers that have investigated the issue.
One thing that the military does seem concerned about is the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a provisional government consisting of representatives elected in the November elections. When asked about the CRPH, as well as the international calls for the Committee to be recognised as Myanmar’s legitimate government, the brigadier general was quick to respond and did not mince his words.
“Not more than 15 political parties support the CRPH. When you try and discuss the CRPH, they are only an online government. They are illegal and there is no way to speak about them,” Zaw Min Tun said.
“We [the military] have so much experience with how to tackle these kinds of organisations,” he said, referring to earlier organisations that formed in opposition to the previous military coups in 1962 and 1988.
In both instances, the military responded with mass violence.
This story has been co-published by Southeast Asia Globe and Al Jazeera.